“Sometimes we go to funerals just to eat,” says Godfrey Mngomezulu, who has to make R780 a month stretch for his family of six.
The smell of paraffin emanates from the crammed, silver shack nestled behind a house on a narrow street in Pimville, Soweto.
Mngomezulu, 44, is unemployed and says his biggest concern is feeding his family. He is a priest at an informal local church and sometimes people come to him with problems that mirror his own.
“Sometimes they come to me and say they don’t have anything to eat at their houses, and as well, myself, I don’t have anything to eat, so the stress is double,” he says.
Unemployed since 2014, Mngomezulu feels anxious when leaving the church to do home visits as he is forced to think about who to visit in order to eat. This pains him, he says.
“I used to ask myself from the church, where can I go and get food to eat? And I would go and pretend to be visiting, when we know we are not visiting actually, we are just waiting for them to dish then we get food to eat, then we go back home.
“Sometimes, something else that hurts, né? If there is a funeral, you go there not because you want to go to the funeral but because you want food to eat,” says Mngomezulu, shaking his head sadly. There is a long pause before he speaks again.
‘R780 not enough’
Mngomezulu has no formal education, which puts him in an even more difficult position. His wife and two grown children are also unemployed and the family survives on his two grandchildren’s grant money.
“That R780 for both of them is not enough,” he says.
Mngomezulu made a breakthrough last year when a security company offered him work in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. But his happiness was short-lived as he soon discovered the work was only temporary. He was crushed.
“I am a hard-working person. I have been struggling. My wish … I don’t wish to see someone else struggling like I was struggling. I’m willing to help others because I know how hard it is when you are struggling,” Mngomezulu says quietly, fiddling with his palms.
Two fingers are missing on his right hand. He lost them in an accident while working as a taxi driver in Zola, Soweto, in 2002.
Some of his friends have died in front of him as a result of the taxi wars. On a recent occasion, he “was inside the shop and when I came back, my friends were lying down dead”.
Mngomezulu did a security guard course and, after qualifying, worked until his contract at a security company expired in 2014.
Although he views being a security guard as safer than being a taxi driver, he is considering going back to driving a taxi. He needs a professional driving permit to do so, which he aims to get once he has the money to do so.
“I don’t like to go back there, but what can I do? I don’t want to steal, that will leave someone crying at home and that is not fair,” he says.
After his contract expired, Mngomezulu decided to buy stock from Dragon City, China Mart and China Mall to sell and make some money. His stock ranged from cosmetics to clothes and perfumes.
“I would use money that I would borrow from people for stock and pay them back after selling,” he says.
Otherwise, Mngomezulu is surviving on piecemeal jobs, including painting people’s houses.
According to the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey released on Tuesday, South Africa’s unemployment rate decreased by 0,4 of a percentage point to 27,1% in the 4th quarter of 2018 compared to the 3rd quarter of 2018. Ground Up recently reported that people looking for work, but who have not worked for a year or more — is consistently high: 4.4 million in the fourth quarter of last year.
Two periodic table of elements charts hang above a photograph of Mary Mngomezulu, his wife, who is wearing a blue-and-white church uniform. The frame rests against a piece of plank that holds their shack intact. She is also unemployed.
Most of the family share one big bed, piled high with folded blankets. “Ntando sleeps on top of these blankets on the floor at night,” says Mary, pointing at her 19-year-old son and moving countless scatter cushions and pillows on top of the blankets.
There is only one small window in the organised shack, in the makeshift kitchen, where the same bucket that the family urinates in at night is sitting ready to catch any rain that might come in through the holes in the roof.
Sick and anxious
Mngomezulu’s 28-year-old daughter, Mpho Mngomezulu, says she is HIV positive and anxious about what the future holds for her children, who she can tell have been affected by everything around them. She used to work as a cleaner, but has been unemployed since 2010.
Mpho says the stress of the uncertainty has played a role in her becoming sicker. “Sometimes I cry alone,” she says, turning her head away.
Mngomezulu is glad his son does not take nyaope like other boys who cannot find work in the southern township.
“I always push him so that he knows that the person who must get help is him, because I no longer have the energy,” he says, looking at his son, who looks away sheepishly. “Sometimes when I am sitting alone, I say thank God that no matter how bad things are, he is not a nyaope. He doesn’t take drugs because of the situation [that] is happening at home,” he gesticulates with his fingers.
Ntando is unemployed, but Godfrey believes he has a future. “If my son can at least get something, I know that then maybe he can change our lives at home,” he says hopefully.
Ntando says he feels the pressure because even though he is young, he needs to step up and help make ends meet.
“Sometimes when I walk into the house and there is food, but I know that it does not come from me, I get sad,” he says.
Ntando wanted to be a civil engineer, but he has deferred his dream for a job as a soldier or police officer once he has a licence. He already has a learner’s licence, he says with pride.
Mngomezulu admits that he looted goods during an attack on migrant-owned shops in Soweto, items like sour milk, chicken pieces and cooking oil.
“I didn’t want to, but I looked at my situation and saw that this could make me at least survive for one month. And I must be honest with you, we were very happy in the house because everything was there,” he says with a pang of guilt.
Looking beyond the pain of the present, Mngomezulu’s hopes to find a way to pay his grandchildren’s school fees.